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The Bible Scripture is an amazing Book. God, who has infinite intelligence, has placed all we need to know of the meaning of life and how it works in 66 books contained in One Book. This is vastly more difficult that you and I trying to explain advanced algebra to our pet cat in a way that the cat will be able to understand and apply it! It is not surprising that there are confusing parts in the Bible, yet the Bible Gateway is the key to understanding the universe and our place in it.
As we enter the Bible Gateway there are two main Christian approaches to understanding Bible Scripture. Which approach a person takes depends on their presuppositions. A presupposition is an assumption a person makes as a framework to understand something else. While there are many Bible Scriptures which can be understood no matter which approach a person takes, understanding difficult or confusing verses needs to come from the correct foundation - we need to enter through the correct Bible Gateway.
The first, and currently most popular approach, is to look at God’s dealings with mankind in a compartmentalized way sometimes called ages or dispensations. With this the presupposition is that God deals differently with different people at the various stages of history. So, for example, God dealt with Abraham on the basis of Promise, He dealt with Moses on the basis of Law and we are now living in the age of Grace. Those using this approach see each way God deals with mankind as separate although they acknowledge there may be some overlap as God moves from one way to another.
The most popular system that uses this presupposition is called Dispensationalism. Although there is some disagreement among dispensationalists as to how many dispensations or ages there are [from 3 to 33!], most see seven distinct ages.
“The word "dispensation" comes from the word "dispense". So a dispensation is an administration (or dispensing) of God's will over a certain period of time to a certain group of people. In other words, a dispensation is God's way of dealing with a group of people during a particular time period. To properly understand a Bible passage, it is important to know both the time period to which it refers, and the group of people to which it applies. This way, you can determine which dispensation applies to each Biblical passage.
“God has had different rules for different groups of people in different time periods. Not only may the rules be different, but the punishment for not keeping the rules may be different. The way God interacts with man may be different. Sometimes even the environment man lives in may be different.” The Basics Of Understanding The Bible, Matthew McGee at www.matthewmcgee.org
The seven dispensations normally mentioned are:
1. Dispensation Of Innocence
2. Dispensation Of Conscience
3. Dispensation Of Human Government
4. Dispensation Of Promise
5. Dispensation Of Law
6. Dispensation Of Grace
7. Millennial Reign Of Christ [some divide this into 3 dispensations]
There are two fundamental problems with this approach that I see. I feel these problems are inherent in this presupposition, although most Dispensationalists would not agree that their position leads to the following conclusions.
If the dealings of God with mankind are separate at different times of history and not essentially connected, then God changes. In one era He works by Promise, in another by Law, in another by Nationalism, and yet in still another by Grace. If God changes how He operates from age to age, how do we know how He will operate in the future? What stability or foundation do we have to build on? The Bible Gateway seems to change at random.
Bible Scripture is plain that God does not change:
“I the Lord do not change…” Mal. 3:6
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Heb. 13:8
God’s dealings with mankind in different ways at different periods of history means that there is more than one way to be saved. If there is any way to be saved at any time in history other than the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the Cross, then the Cross is unnecessary - a sadist joke played by the Father on the Son.
"Then he said to them, 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.' Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, 'My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.'” Matt. 26:38-38, NIV
If Dispensationalism is correct, then the Father could have replied, “We did it differently with Adam, Abraham, Moses and others so, yes, I can grant the request of my deeply loved Son and spare Him all the pain.”
But the Father did not answer that way because there was no other way - not then…not ever.
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” John 14:6, NIV
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12, NIV
“Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up….Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place…only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption….How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” Heb. 9:1-15, NIV
Notice that the Old Testament system was a temporary system which pointed to what Christ would do and His death covered the sins committed under the first covenant [Old Testament period].
The second way to approach the Bible Gateway is to see all the workings of God with mankind as a part of one overall plan. The Bible Scripture then is the revelation, in stages, of one unified plan. Each stage adds to and builds on the one which has gone before. In this view, the different ages are not different ways God works, but the necessary development needed to reach the end goal. In a similar way that we need to learn addition before multiplication and that before algebra, etc.
The overall plan is referred to as the Eternal or Everlasting Covenant which God made within the Godhead before the creation of the world. At different stages in history God made covenants with different people. These covenants reveal a portion of the Eternal Covenant as it relates to that stage of history. No where are we told the entire Eternal Covenant, but the parts of it that relate to mankind are revealed in a series of covenants:
1. The Edenic Covenant
2. The Adamic Covenant
3. The Noah Covenant
5. The Mosaic Covenant
6. The Davidic Covenant
7. The New Covenant.
We look at each of these covenants in detail and their relation to the whole in our The Love Covenants course.
“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep…” Heb. 13:20, NIV
Covenantalism sees that there is only one way to be saved: the shed Blood of Jesus Christ. The only real difference is that those in the Old Testament era looked forward in faith to what Christ would do on the Cross and those of us in the New Testament era look back in faith to what He did do on the Cross.
So, through the covenants Bible Gateway, we see that both Law and Grace are in all covenants except the Edenic Covenant which was made before sin entered the world. Each covenant is not a different way of God dealing with mankind, but a building block on the way to the end goal: The New Covenant. So, for example, God’s dealings with Abraham are not essentially different than God’s dealings with Moses. The covenant with Moses takes the Covenant of Abraham [and all the other previous ones] and advances the revelation of God. Another example, one of the purposes of the Law is to reveal the righteous standard of God. That standard has never changed and never will change. In order for it to change, there would have to be a change in the character of God - which would mean He is not the God the Bible declares Him to be.
Unlike what many Christians believe today, this presupposition does not mean the Old Testament is simply something we “learn from” but has no further importance for today. Yes, the New Covenant has superseded the The Old Covenant and completed it. What God intends to reveal to us about the Eternal Covenant is complete. No further covenants will be coming. Jesus is the fulfillment and centre of all things.
He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ…That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. [Eph. 1:9-10, 19-23, NIV]
However, the Old Testament is the foundation on which the New Testament is build. The principles and revelations of how God works shown in the Old Testament have not changed. We will never come to a balanced view of the New Testament if we do not have a proper understanding and respect of the Old Testament. We could say that the Old Testament is the Bible Gateway for a fuller and richer understanding of the New Testament and the New Testament is the Bible Gateway for correctly understanding what God was doing in the Old Testament.
Which of these two presuppositions you begin with will greatly influence how you understand things like the nature of God, the relation of law and grace, the purpose of Israel, the reason for the Church, etc. Obviously, only one can be the right foundation to enter the Bible Gateway. You will go to Bible Scripture with one of these to viewpoints; however loosely held. As you examine the Bible for yourself, keep a careful eye out for Scripture verses and concepts that will confirm or challenge your choice. Don’t be afraid to follow where the evidence leads.